Fred Vultee — a Mizzou Ph.D. and former Missourian news editor, now teaching at Wayne State University — offered a session on some of his research, answering the question “Do readers notice good copy editing?”
Vultee finds that readers notice when a story is well edited. They are particularly sensitive to details and good grammar. They are less sensitive to structural problems. Internal consistency is particularly important, but fine points of style are lost on readers. They expect stories to sound “professional” — better than what they could do themselves. Heavy users of news are much more sensitive to editing than casual users.
An interesting conclusion for Vultee is that editing varies by platform. Online readers seem to have different expectations than print readers. This might point newsrooms away from universal copy desks and in the direction we’ve taken at the Missourian: to separate production desks for print and online. How exactly do they differ? Online readers seem to have different expectations of story organization. They are more likely to see a well-edited story as badly organized, and they are more likely to see an unedited story as well organized. Vultee’s research doesn’t explain this, but I wonder if this speaks to the idea that online readers don’t want a traditional Point A-to-Point B story but need something more packaged and “nuggetized.” We may be hearing echoes of the Jakob Nielsen research on how online readers read and the need for us to more often do “scanner-style” stories online. It appears we might need different copy editors focused on print and online, working in different ways. I think that means more copy editors, not fewer, in a hybrid print-online news organization.
Vultee doesn’t claim that editing makes publishers more money, but if you consider what Mizzou’s Esther Thorson et al. have found about newsroom investments — that they do translate into revenue, probably because readers notice product quality — and you add Vultee’s observations that readers notice editing quality, you have the very beginnings of a case for hiring, not firing, copy editors.